|How to Practice
Franz Liszt was said to be the greatest pianist ever. He had a method of practising, which we can use for piping. By adding a few extra steps we can develop individual high performance methods. The more effective one's practice, the faster one learns and the greater the motivation.
This page is where you will find some secrets of how to be a better piper.
Many issues arise during individual practice for which there are often quick and simple answers. Please get in touch to ask about your particular problem.
Not every single issue can be predicted, nor can this list of suggestions ever be complete.
Finding the magic explanation which helps the student grasp what they are seeking is the art of teaching.What to say often depends on when it is to be said. For this, unfortunately, a teach yourself method will never suffice.
When we experience something, the brain makes connections between neurons. These connections are either reinforced by being refreshed, or replaced with new but very similar patterns. When we play something nearly correct, in fact what we do is create a new set of competing connections between neurons which then need to be dismissed when playing next time.We can liken this to making a map and drawing new junctions every time we make a mistake. If we don't delete the mistakes, we will soon get lost...
Changing our mistakes, mentally comparing the thing we played with that which we aimed at playing or wanted to play, will make our learning much more effective and efficient.
By breaking playing down into its smallest elements, we can perfect every small element and then (re)assemble these elements to make strong pipers. In some other instruments we would call this learning rudiments and then putting them into practise.
When just starting to play the fingers are not very well disciplined and don't necessairly respond correctly to instructions. Often instructions to move a finger on the left hand will be sent to the right hand. This is a cyclical problem - as we break through different stages of development, the hands decide for themselves that they know better and then 'lefts and rights' problems appear. There is a simple exercise for this.
Please note, thumbs are not used inthis exercise, and this is something which will need to be repeated frequently. To begin with it will be terrible, but the hands will learn amazingly quickly. Doing this at the beginning will give as much progress as all other practice.
Good technique is the ability to control one's fingers, to make them do what one wants them to do when one wants it done. It is not playing doublings very fast.
Good technique must be combined with musical understanding to decide when things will be done, to know exactly the rhythm of each and every gracenote, why it should be thus, and how to make it happen.
The Piping Muscle
There is such a thing! Like building any muscle, one should work away until the muscle fails (everytying goes wrong) and then rest and allow it to recover. Identifying when finger control has gone beyond mental capacity is an art for teachers to master, and is important as a change in strategy will be needed to develop mental capacity for piping to keep a student motivated. Teaching yourself, you must know that there is such a thing as a piping muscle and that you need to keep tiring it, from one or another angle, but let it recover too.
Playing any instrument is pretty well based on the same principles; moving the fngers up and down in a certain order in a certain time - the order is technique and the time (rhythm) is music. By corrupting the time we make personal music. Thus, technique can be programmed and guaranteed like programming a computer. Like with a computer actions are very close together in time but not simultaneous. By doing this programming effectively, we can guarantee our technique and use the spare energy on controlling our music.
Liszt played one note, seven times in a row corectly, and when he had achieved this, he added the next note, and so on until the entire piece was done.
There are five stages in learning to play something:
Each and every step should be practised seven times in a row correctly. This is very hard at the beginning but gets easier with time The early stages of learning with this method seem to take forever, but the result is vastly accelerated learning later on.
There are pipe bands using exactly this method, without regular contact with an experienced teacher. These bands have had a few workshops with the author, Lindsay Davidson (email: lindsaydavidson(at)lindsaydavidson(dot)co(dot)uk) to install the method and motivate them, then to make specific jumps in playing level through barriers. Thereafter they have been guiding themselves with discipline and diligence with occasional advice via email.
Any individual in a group can have a problem at anyone of the steps outlined above. Often, just pulling a band all back to basic programming in a small problem area will solve the problem, and can often be highly motivational - everyone can discover an area they were weak on.
The teacher has the responsibility to quickly and discreetly identify exactly who has a problem with which step, and either tell that person individually what is going wrong, or find a collective exercise which can avoid embarrasment.
A band is only as strong as its weakest player. Periodically the leader/teacher should individually assess each member and generate individual exercises for that person to solve their biggest problems whilst at the same time finding exercises which can benefit the whole group. Chice of repertoire should have two goals - to highlight a group's strengths, but also to develop (improve) areas of weakness.
Every rehearsal should feel like a lesson for every individual. Every time a tune is played, someone in the group should be given something to improve, preferablly two or three people. Everyone should get the same number of elements to improve in an evening so that no-one feels either too good, or picked on/singled out. This way, a fairly wide array of experience can be served in one group (within reason).
A good band plays the same thing at the same time using the same techniques. In the 'good old days', 'grunt and slap' was a norm in teaching, especially in pipe bands. That is, the pipe major would growl 'not this way, not that way, but something else', then play something similar, and call it a lesson. The student would firstly be expected to not ask, and secondly, to copy like a monkey.
The above method does away with the need to be perpetually negative in a lesson. It is possible to examine more carefully what a student is playing, and test it against what is being aimed for. This allows us to establish positive goals, and identify which tools we need, and what we don't have, in order to achieve our goals.
The magic maxim goes thus:
"If you can play slowly, you can play quickly, but the converse isn't necessarily true"
In piping at the highest level, you will need to be able to decide minutiae of when to open and close every single gracenote, and exactly how much time to give to it. To program this exactly, you will need to be able to play very slowly indeed, and bluffing will not be possible.
For using midi files to help with this, please click here
How to Practice
Rhythm and Reading Music
Hand Position and the Scale
G,D,E Gracenotes exercise
Doublings - general principles
Low G Doublings
Low A Doublings
High G Doublings
High A Doublings
Transition to Bagpipes
Tuning a Bagpipe
Using Midi files